Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Where the heart is

When friends and family visit for the first time, the words "cute", "cozy", and "darling" are bandied about. They ultimately recall that the townhouse my wife and I sold in November had one more half-bathroom and a little more floor space. This creates a logical paradox and begs the question, "So why did you move?"
It's a blow against living to consume. I've watched friends and coworkers move further and further away from where they spend most of their time, because "Out there, you can afford more house." I find this equation faulty, as its only parameters are dollars and square feet. Moreover, this calculus is predicated on the conclusion that a bigger house is always a better house.
I first began to dissect the equation long before moving, using that management-student logic that so often gets lodged in my head. In developing cost estimates, time=money. Though, absent from the $/sq foot equation for choosing where to live were the hours spent in rush hour traffic. For my friends who didn't mind an hour and a half each way stuck in a slow-moving car, I stepped through some simplified arithmetic: 3 hrs/day * 5 days/week * 50 weeks/year * 1 day/24 hours = 31.25 days/year. Commuters who enjoy half that daily ride- not at all a bad commute in the DC area- spend two full weeks in their cars every year. I understand that gas is fairly expensive, too. Mrs. and I resigned ourselves to our fairly average DC-area commutes, but resolved that we couldn't move further away.
This back-of-the-envelope finance led me to think about opportunity costs: what do we pass-up with all of this A-to-B? This begged the question of efficiency: If the commuting is wasting certain resources (i.e., my life), is it possible that it is inherently wasteful? Are there other aspects of my life that are wasteful? Some of these questions emerged before the move, some after.
The dominoes fell down in lovely little rows and started to yield answers: If I live close enough to the train to walk to it each day, I won't need to waste time, money, and fuel driving to it, nor driving to the gym to run in place. If I live near the town center, I can walk there, too- there is poetic logic in walking to and from the places where I dine. If I replace my vintage windows with high-efficiency windows and insulate my hot-water pipes and ducts, I won’t have to spend so much to heat and cool my house and heat my water. If I replace some of my lawn with a vegetable garden, I won't have to mow it, and I'll save money on produce in the summer. If I use a rotary mower, I'll never have to buy gas or change oil. If I install a rain-barrel on my downspout, I won't spend as much money to water my garden, and I'll be a better neighbor by reducing my impact on storm water. It became clear that I needed to stop working against myself and my surroundings.
My little house also started to give me answers to questions I hadn't known to ask. For instance, the wisdom of building a little Cape Cod and planting a couple of maple trees in front of it has become apparent. The maples, like the house are more than half a century old now, and regulate both water and insolation. I haven't paid to heat or cool my home since April.
The collective lesson for me has been (and continues to be) learning to understand what I really want, and how to get it without wasting resources on things I don't. Finding a little house that has space to suit my current and anticipated needs without extraneous space for extraneous things has made a huge difference.

Thanks to Charise for getting me thinking about this again.


Sue said...

It is heartwarming to see someone take this planetwise approach to choosing a home. We hope to step down to a smaller home within a few years, and shed a lot of material baggage in the process. We are viewed as odd in our neighborhood, for using a rotary/reel mower, leaving large cirles of undisturbed grasses (and wild strawberries and violets, and wild flowers) around our huge trees which (unlike the neighbors) we never top off, so we can use fans rather than air conditioning to cool the house each evening. Our blue recycling bags out number the black garbage bags each week for pick up and the compost pile is producing rich humous for growing tomatoes, much better than anything in the stores.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thank you for stopping by and sharing. I've enjoyed reading Sociological Stew.
Likewise, I’m glad to hear from someone who has begun to realize at-home praxis in environmentalism. I'm afraid that the environmental camp has done a pretty lousy job of getting people to think in this way; there are a lot of armchair greens who see environmentalism as one of a series of political checkboxes, and others who profess that you’re not even trying unless you live in a yurt and drink rainwater.
What I really want people to understand is that anyone can make positive changes with very simple actions. These actions don't have to be costly and they don't have to take up much time. Many of them actually save both. I've begun to realize that these simple actions accumulate, lead to other simple actions, and yield a better life.

twotymer97 said...

I'm going to print this one off and put it somewhere where I can read it often.

Your thinking is so sane.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I’m glad that this resonates with you. I was inspired to see you writing about your own right-sized home the other day. More people who are making sound choices need to share this way of thinking. At present, many people cannot hear their own voice over the din of people selling them what they "are supposed to" want. If it becomes clear that we don’t have to listen to this materialism, that one size does not fit all, we can build better communities and a better world.
Thanks for reading.


Diane said...

I'm learning to shed some excess baggage myself! With a one-year-old around, I find I need the space for other things, like raucous play. At first I was pretty upset about having to remove all my STUFF so it didn't get broken, drooled upon, hauled about. But now I am enjoying the open space of the house and am considering doing away with all our excess. Every time I get rid of something I feel like I can breathe a little more.
Thanks for visiting my site, by the way!

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thanks for stopping by. I run into the most interesting blogs by reading . I know I’ll be back to yours for that banana ice cream recipe.
I’m glad to read that you’ve found an opportunity to simplify. Transitions, like having kids, buying a new home, starting a new job &c. are good opportunities to begin this kind of inquiry into values. I think having kids (not that I have any) is about the clearest way for most people to begin understanding the idea of sustainability. It instantly becomes obvious that providing for the little ones ultimately means bequeathing to them a home that works. I’m always glad to see sites like your blog that link daily life with a more sustainable way of thinking.

pacmandogbert said...

I agree with your decision-making logic. In the future, when resources are way more scarce, we will have to go back to urban living. My daughter in Chicago does not have a car because waling and public transportation work just fine in the city.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m glad this train of thought resonates with you. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but I think you’re absolutely right: city-living can be very environmentally friendly.
As for your comment, "In the future, when resources are way more scarce, we will have to go back to urban living", I assert that this future is now. Our finite resources will last longer and benefit more people if we start to realize an environmentally effective urban way of life now.